What happens to the art market when the world is turned ‘upside down’? This was the question at the heart of a live discussion led by Melanie Gerlis, art market writer for The Financial Times, with Clare McAndrew, Founder of Arts Economics, Noah Horowitz, Director of the Americas for Art Basel, and Paul Donovan, Global Wealth Management Chief Economist for UBS.

‘This is the second major recession that businesses have had to face in just over a decade,’ said McAndrew, discussing the initial challenge COVID-19 has posed to the art market’s health. While she acknowledges it is ‘too early’ to make projections, she believes previous crises can provide useful learnings. In 2008, the art market saw a significant loss in value – but ‘bounced back’ strongly, achieving ‘less volatile growth’, supported by global diversification.

Though Horowitz agreed previous crises have been challenging, he similarly sees some cause to be optimistic: ‘I think we should expect a lot of innovation and experimentation,’ he said, reflecting on the market’s possible evolution. He cited the ‘enormous drop off’ in the New York market in the early 90s – a moment which nevertheless led to ‘a flourishing of gallery openings’, including big names like Gavin Brown, Greene Naftali and Casey Kaplan.

Some innovations have already emerged: Art Basel has launched its online viewing rooms, and selling exhibitions have become a common feature of gallery websites – despite historic ‘pushback’, McAndrew noted. For Donovan, ‘the COVID-19 crisis is, in many ways, accelerating structural changes that were already happening’. He references online retail, flexible working, and localized production – adaptions which were already being catalyzed by a wider push towards sustainability.

Another side-effect of the art market’s transition to online platforms has been price transparency – a development Horowitz had initially thought would be ‘years’ in the making. ‘When Art Basel ran its online viewing room in March, one of the mandates set out was that every gallery had to post a price. And it happened’. McAndrew described the step as ‘exciting’, though added that private selling – particularly at the highest end of the market – will make complete transparency challenging to achieve.

For new collectors, the art market’s evolution towards transparency could prove appealing. ‘I think a lot of buyers still think that this is a market that’s out of their reach,’ said McAndrew. Commenting on online auctions in the wake of global lockdowns, Dirk Boll, President of Christie’s EMERI, said the ‘threshold had been lowered’, indicating a move towards wider participation.

Though the future shape of the art market remains to be seen, all participants agreed that advances in technology and a new approach to physical events could lead to innovation. Horowitz summarized: ‘Moments of crisis are moments for opportunity, and I think some positive things will come of this’.

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